The release of First Man, the Neil Armstrong biopic, has brought renewed attention to the Soviets’ October 4, 1957, launch of Sputnik, the first satellite sent into orbit from Earth. The launch alarmed many Americans and led to a renewed commitment to space research and science in general. This made possible rapid strides in the space program that eventually inspired President John F. Kennedy’s call for a moon landing, which led to the triumphant success that is the subject of the movie.
That narrative is true as far as it goes, but the impression it can give — that Sputnik exposed serious shortcomings in our space program that shocked an outraged public — is not. First of all, there was no immediate public outrage. As the technology writer T. A. Heppenheimer has written of Americans’ immediate reaction to Sputnik:
In Boston, Newsweek found “massive indifference.” In Denver the magazine reported “a vague feeling that we have stepped into a new era, but people aren’t discussing it the way they are football and the Asiatic flu.” On October 5 the front-page headline in the Milwaukee Sentinel read: TODAY WE MAKE HISTORY. It referred to the first-ever World Series game played in that city.
More important, the USSR was not the first to develop and test the necessary technology for a launchable satellite. America was — but we threw the “race” by intentionally refraining from using it:
On September 20, 1956, more than a year before the Soviet Union launched the world’s first satellite, a four-stage Jupiter-C rocket stood on a launch pad at Cape Canaveral. It had three stages — sections that fire in turn and then are jettisoned. The rocket was almost identical to the one that would lift America’s first satellite into orbit 16 months later, and Wernher von Braun, director of development for the U.S. Army’s rocket program, was well aware of its capabilities. All he had to do was give it a functioning fourth stage, and with that much more power, the Jupiter-C could launch a small payload into Earth orbit — barely a decade after the end of World War II, and well ahead of anything the Soviet Union might accomplish.
But von Braun was not the only one who knew what the rocket could do. As he sat in his office overseeing the pre-launch preparations, the telephone rang. It was his boss, Maj. Gen. John B. Medaris. “Wernher,” said the general, “I must put you under direct orders personally to inspect that fourth stage to make sure it is not live.”
It was indeed a dummy, but the rocket’s first three stages soon showed their power. Firing successfully in sequence, they boosted the top stage to an altitude of 682 miles and a range of 3,335 miles. Both achievements set records, and von Braun came away from the launch fully aware that with only slightly more oomph, the top stage would have flown into orbit. Yet there was a reason for Medaris’s order, one with a background that went back 10 years.
Medaris gave von Braun his stern command because the U.S. was thinking of the future. Space law was not yet a topic of discussion, and the right to fly a satellite over a foreign country was unclear at best. We knew the Soviets stood ready to shoot down U.S. airplanes flying over the USSR (as they would do with Francis Gary Powers and his U-2 in 1960), and if the U.S. launched a satellite into space, the USSR might claim the same right, to destroy the satellite or at least demand advance notification and permission. But by letting the Soviets launch their satellite and allowing it to fly unmolested, the U.S. could establish the principle of free spaceflight.
Seeing the Soviets get all the glory and international prestige for Sputnik was a bitter pill, but it was worth it — even when the Soviets followed up with Sputnik 2, a much larger satellite that carried a canine passenger. In January 1958 the U.S. launched its own first successful satellite, the 30-pound Explorer 1, but that May the Soviets upstaged Uncle Sam yet again by putting a ton-and-a-half satellite into orbit. That’s when the U.S. public (and politicians) began to freak out. As Heppenheimer writes, “In the realm of showy space feats, the United States remained a step behind the Soviets for years.”
VIEW SLIDESHOW: Apollo 11
Why was the U.S. so eager to establish free spaceflight that it would deliberately hand the Soviets repeated propaganda triumphs? Because we knew we would be launching spy satellites soon (though not soon enough to spare Powers 21 months of captivity), and if the Soviets could shoot them down with the sanction of international law behind them, the program would be worthless. The decision was a good one, because what those spy satellites found was well worth the humiliation of being beaten into space:
In secret, however, America was building and deploying CORONA, a space-based reconnaissance system. In 1961 it revealed that Soviet missile capabilities were much less than had been thought only a year earlier. Subsequent flights provided detailed maps of the U.S.S.R.’s submarine bases, anti-aircraft batteries, and tank deployments. By the late 1970s satellites were sending real-time images with details as small as six inches across. Because of the U.S. decision to hold back on launching a satellite in 1956, the Soviets got to spend a few years exulting in the “missile gap.” But this was a small price to pay for the wealth of satellite intelligence that uncovered strategic weapons, allayed fears of Soviet breakthroughs, helped ratchet down tensions, and ultimately hastened the end of the Cold War.
The post-Sputnik surge in science and technology was real, and necessary, but to the world outside of U.S. intelligence circles, it made the “space race” seem much closer than it actually was. America could easily have been first to put a satellite in orbit, and despite John F. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign rhetoric, which almost certainly helped him win that year’s election, there was no “missile gap.” The race turned into a rout when the Soviets abandoned their lunar-landing program, which was still in its early stages, once it became clear that Apollo would beat them. So when Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin planted the American flag on the moon, American space supremacy was absolutely beyond challenge. In a world where we now pay the Russians to fly our astronauts to the International Space Station, it all seems very long ago.